Victor Pelevin’s new novella, Hall of the Singing Caryatids, satirizes contemporary capitalism in a smart and fun critique of what we do for money and with money.
Russian author Victor Pelevin’s latest novella, Hall of the Singing Caryatids, is wonderfully weird, dripping with postmodern irony and surreal imagery. A “caryatid,” in Greek architecture, is a statue of a woman that supports a ceiling. Lena, as the novella opens, is a girl who finds herself being hired to do just that.
The story starts with a bizarre audition: take your clothes off, stand on the desk, sing, stand on one foot while singing naked on the desk. Things only get more bizarre from there. Lena and the other girls hired from these auditions assume that they’re going to be working for a sort of classy escort service. Their real job, they find, is a bit more complicated: serving as part of the fantasy architecture of a new underground nightclub that caters to the most fabulously wealthy men in Moscow. “What we’re creating here,” explains the owner, “is going to outdo anything that even the surfeited Roman emperors ever witnessed.” Lena is assigned to a group of girls who are told they will serve as the “Singing Caryatids of the Malachite Hall.”
For this position, they smear themselves in an ointment that makes their skin look like glossy malachite stone, and more importantly they must receive injections of a substance called Mantis-B. A doctor in a white coat, who looks like “a good-natured Doolittle” but answers to the name Comrade Colonel, explains that researchers have isolated the “complex protein” that allows praying mantises to remain motionless for hours on end. They’ve developed this protein into a serum that “allows human beings to remain totally immobile for hours without any adverse effects–total, stonelike immobility.” This substance will allow the girls to function as caryatids, living statues who appear to support the roof in one room of the nightclub. Their only responsibility, as they stand motionless in their serum-induced trance, will be to provide a sort of live Muzak–unless, of course, one of the clients invites them down from the pedestals for other activities.
Lena and the other girls feel somewhat uncomfortable about the arrangement, but it’s easy money, and most of them are in no position to turn down a paycheck. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the serum has unexpected side effects. While they’re under the influence of the drug, the girls experience a flood of peace and light almost like a religious experience, and they begin to believe that they’re communing with the essential spirit of the praying mantis, whose figure appears to them in the mind’s eye.
Increasingly, they become addicted to this psychedelic spiritual experience, so that “after work Lena always felt shattered. The journey back to Moscow was especially hard for her–that was when the effects of the Mantis-B finally wore off. Lena would begin to feel depressed–the human world to which she had to return seemed like such an uncomfortable place.” To console herself on the ride home she reads Counterculture, an intellectual-hipster magazine with “an aesthetic of anti-bourgeois revolt” that isn’t as rebellious as it thinks it is–as Lena’s friend Kima explains it, counterculture itself is now “a market niche,” exploited for profit by the ruling elite.
Despite its beautiful caryatids, the Malachite Hall receives few visitors. Other rooms in the nightclub (one has a pool table with blowjob-giving legs) are more popular. So the girls are happy when at last Mikhail Botvinik, one of Moscow’s most eligible bachelors, strolls into their room with three of his friends. On their first visit the four men do nothing but talk. They’re discussing advertising techniques–one of them is an “expert marketologist.” Lena’s disappointed, at least until her next shift, when it turns out Botvinik has returned as her “exclusive client.” Simple prostitution is almost a relief from the strangeness of everything else that’s happened, but the hallucinatory praying mantis has other ideas and tells Lena exactly how she should make this a night Botvinik will never forget–with macabre consequences.
At surface value the story flirts with absurdity, but Pelevin’s underlying social commentary can be quite devastating. At the beginning of the novella the girls are instructed to meet a chauffeur holding a placard that reads “semiotic signs,” who will take them to their new workplace. Kima, the smartypants in the group, worries that this means the whole thing is a prank, because “semiotics is the science of sign systems…translate it into normal Russian and you get ‘sign signs.’ That’s enough to make anyone with an education laugh.” The others, who do not have university educations, are somewhat lost, and Asya snaps, “So would it be better if they wrote ‘whorish prostitutes’?” That ends the discussion for the moment.
But over the course of the story you realize that Pelevin explores what happens in a society where chemicals like Mantis-B, together with all the other instruments of power amassed during the Cold War, now lack any meaningful ideology to serve. Instead such instruments are sold to the highest bidder, serving only pleasure and the increase of the almighty GDP. Power is money and money is power. A lot of what passes for writing is just “one marketer cutting up words and another pasting them back together as PR.” There is no real point or purpose to any of this; it’s business. The surreal plot reflects the absurdities of decadent capitalism.
Hall of the Singing Caryatids is a smart book, even a heady book, about signs, the symbolism of language and its deconstruction in a globally commercialized culture. It’s also a zany romp through a bizarre underworld full of angsty young women, thugs, and billionaires. If you mashed up 1984, The Castle, and an episode of Entourage, then threw in a dash of French critical theory, you’d get something like this strange–but thoroughly enjoyable–book.